The overview effect

The overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from outer space. Indeed, many people who have experienced outer space have lived the overview effect, “truly transformative experiences including senses of wonder and awe, unity with nature, transcendence, and universal brotherhood”. This state of mental clarity occurs when you are flung so far away from Earth that you become totally overwhelmed and awed by the fragility and unity of life on our blue globe. It’s the uncanny sense of understanding the “big picture” and of feeling connected yet bigger than the intricate processes bubbling on Earth.

Author Frank White first coined the term, the “overview effect”, when he was flying in an aeroplane across the country in the 1970s. After looking out the window, he thought: “Anyone living in a space settlement… will always have an overview. They will see things that we know, but that we don’t experience, which is that the Earth is one system”. “We’re all part of that system, and there is a certain unity and coherence to it all”.

The overview effect is the experience of seeing first-hand the reality of the Earth in outer space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From outer space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative. This shift in awareness doesn’t stop once they set foot back on Earth. It’s a lasting change that stays with astronauts as long as they live.

The overview effect

When in space, astronauts have repeatedly reported inexplicable euphoria, a “cosmic connection” or an increased sensitivity to their place in the Universe. The experience sounds like the ultimate high, or the ultimate enlightening; it would appear that without trying, astronauts are able to attain a similar mental state as meditating Buddhist monks. So what is happening when the human body is in space? Does zero-gravity create new connections in the brain? Or is it a natural human response to the vastness of space and realising just how small we are in comparison? Whatever the reason, it looks like even when astronauts are back on solid ground, they have changed profoundly…

On March 6, 1969, Rusty Schweickart experienced a feeling that the whole Universe was profoundly connected. At the time, he was on a postponed spacewalk outside his Apollo 9 Lunar Module, carrying out tests for the forthcoming Moon landings. He felt a euphoric sensation: “When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognise that your identity is with that whole thing. That makes a change… It comes through to you so powerfully that you’re the sensing element for Man”.

A liberal number of astronauts and cosmonauts have been transformed spiritually by their flights. Travelling in space they experience “the overview effect”, a sense of awe, majesty, and wonder, accompanied by a sense of connection with God and oneness with all humanity. Looking down from on high, spacefarers see a beautiful blue sphere, unmarred by political boundaries. They feel a surge of protectiveness of Earth, its ecology and other people. The problems of everyday life seem insignificant in comparison to the sense of grandeur and opportunity of space.

Trying to find words to express these feelings, astronauts have thanked Good and prayed Allah. In space, near-mystical experiences and humanistic thinking can overpower, at least temporarily, a worldview forged in science and the military. After his trip to the Moon, Edgar Mitchell developed a new philosophy and went on to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences so that his experiences could benefit many other people.

Two years after Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 14 astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, reported experiencing the overview effect. He described the sensation gave him a profound sense of connectedness, with a feeling of bliss and timelessness. He was overwhelmed by the experience. He became profoundly aware that each and every atom in the Universe was connected in some way, and on seeing Earth from space he had an understanding that all the humans, animals and systems were a part of the same thing, a synergistic whole. It was an interconnected euphoria.

Books about the effect

Two books concerning the overview effect: “The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles” by Ron Garon, and “The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution” by Frank White.

The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles” by Ron Garon: “For astronaut Ron Garan, living on the International Space Station was a powerful, transformative experience – one that he believes holds the key to solving our problems here on Earth. On space walks and through windows, Garan was struck by the stunning beauty of the Earth from space but sobered by knowing how much needed to be done to help this troubled planet. And yet on the International Space Station, Garan, a former fighter pilot, was working work side by side with Russians, who only a few years before were “the enemy.” If fifteen nationalities could collaborate on one of the most ambitious, technologically complicated undertakings in history, surely we can apply that kind of cooperation and innovation toward creating a better world. That spirit is what Garan calls the “orbital perspective.” Garan vividly conveys what it was like learning to work with a diverse group of people in an environment only a handful of human beings have ever known. But more importantly, he describes how he and others are working to apply the orbital perspective here at home, embracing new partnerships and processes to promote peace and combat hunger, thirst, poverty, and environmental destruction. This book is a call to action for each of us to care for the most important space station of all: planet Earth. You don’t need to be an astronaut to have the orbital perspective. Garan’s message of elevated empathy is an inspiration to all who seek a better world”.

The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution” by Frank White: “Using interviews with and writings by 29 astronauts and cosmonauts, Frank White shows how experiences such as circling the Earth every 90 minutes and viewing it from the moon have profoundly affected our space travelers’ perceptions of themselves, their world, and the future. He shows how the rest of us, who have participated imaginatively in these great adventures, have also been affected psychologically by them. He provides a powerful rationale for space exploration and settlement, describing them as the inevitable next steps in the evolution of human society and human consciousness, as the activities most likely to bring a new perspective to the problems of life on Earth. White goes on to consider the possible consequences of a human presence in space, both for the pioneers who settle there and for those who remain on Earth. He imagines how having a permanent perspective from outer space will affect our politics, our religion, our social relations, our psychology, our economics, and our hard sciences. He confronts the possibility of rebellion by a space colony and of contact with extraterrestrial beings. And, finally, he makes it clear that our fate is in our own hands, that we will shape our future in space effectively only by fashioning a new human space program, free of excessive nationalism and dedicated to the peaceful exploration of the space frontier”.